I’ve discovered a new author. Pádraig Ó’Tuama and he’s written a book called In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now. I’d never heard of this author before reading a blog last week. He’s Irish, a poet, a theologian, and was the leader of the Corrymeela Community in Ireland from 2014 to 2019; Corrymeela has been active in peace and reconciliation work and is a bit like the Iona Community in Scotland.
In his book, In the Shelter, Pádraig wrote about a Buddhist idea of “mu” or “letting go of trying to figure it out,” which is an inexact translation. Apparently, it is more of a Zen Buddhist concept. It is the idea that we live into the questions as the poet Rilke put it. We live with ambiguity and learn to endure through the hard truths when there are no easy answers.
When I read about mu and this week’s gospel story, it seems to me that Jesus’ response to Peter is all about mu. Peter wants to figure everything out; we can see a bit of ourselves in Peter, perhaps. We ask the question, “Why?” We blurt things out we don’t understand; we can be impetuous, hasty. We can be judgmental and snippy. We can just not get something and go on and on about things we don’t understand… well, maybe I’m describing myself and why I’ve always had an affinity for Peter! Mu is living in the shaded areas where nothing is black and white.
Jesus, in rebuking Peter, was giving expression to this Buddhist concept. He was saying, “Take back the question, Peter. Ask a deeper question.” Of course, he didn’t say these words; he said, “Get behind me! Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must take up their cross, deny the self and follow.” Today, Jesus might say to us, “Live in the ambiguity and unknown. Live into the journey. Live into the questions. Live into the story of love.”
Our questions as Peter in this COVID-19 context might be, “Haven’t we had enough? Hasn’t there been enough loss, enough grief, enough fear, or enough loneliness? How can it be that we’re now going through a second Lent in the shadow of COVID-19? Why do we have to carry our crosses farther? Haven’t we gone far enough?” We don’t want to live with ambiguity in the here and now; we want clarity.
Pádraig offers us another thought, though, from his book. I read this quote in Peter Millar’s weekly reflection called “A Candle in the Window” for the 14th of February:
Hope has two lovely daughters,’ Saint Augustine of Hippo is credited with saying, ‘anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and courage to change them.’ I think if the human body has two wise daughters, then they are loneliness and vulnerability. Loneliness in order to face your true self and vulnerability enough to tell the story to others.
The cruelty of our half-lived lives is a false story of connection based on appearance and comparison, and such connections are parasitic on the human community. Those connections glue people together with fear and tell some that they are enough for themselves, that their loneliness and vulnerability are abated.
When I was a school chaplain a young person once wrote a prayer for our end-of-the-day service. He wrote it, he read it out, and then he threw it in the bin. I fished it out and framed it and hung it on my wall…
‘Dear God. Thank you for putting me on this earth but people can get lonely and I don’t like people being lonely cause sometimes I am and it’s not a good feeling. So, I’d like You to pair them up with someone who is not lonely if you can. Amen.’
He read the prayer with such simple truth that I thought I would break.
The prayer had a picture at the end of a sad face covered by a raincloud and a happy face in the middle of a sun. Sad could be happy, I understand this to say, or rainy could be sunny.
There is such humble conditionality in the structure of the prayer. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard more beautiful usage of the three words ‘If you can.’ It’s as if he understands that there are limits to what God can do but there’s no harm in asking.
I think this, too, is mu. Peter asked his questions and answered out of his fear of loneliness, his grief at how things were, and the possibility of Jesus’ death at the hands of the authorities. Maybe, Peter expressed the idea that carrying our cross was too much, that being vulnerable was too hard. And maybe admitting that we don’t always know gets us down. Maybe, Peter’s expressed the same prayer as the youngster who wrote the prayer about loneliness and Peter has acknowledged his isolation in going against the grain and wondering if this is all there is.
Jesus answered with Augustine’s hope, with anger and courage. Jesus was angry that there were those who felt alienated, thrust to the margins, lonely and left alone. And Jesus had the courage to address that loneliness, not just with a glib response saying, “Well, God is with us,” but more with tangible expressions of community, compassion, love by touching lepers, those deemed unclean, those pushed to the margins, speaking to the revolutionaries, religious reformers and ordinary folk, reaching across gender lines and across ethnic origins.
Isn’t our Christian life one of speaking against loneliness and fear, speaking in favour of community and compassion, living sometimes with the fact that there are no easy answers?
What are we called to deny in order to carry our crosses and follow? Would Jesus say something about our world that glorifies violence and cheapens death? What would Jesus say about individualism at the expense of compassion and empathy? What would Jesus say about communities that foster isolation and fear, especially if you are Indigenous or a person of colour?
Today, on this second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel story invites in us a humility that empowers us, in the company of other folks on the journey, to enter into the heart of life in order to live fully the gift of love, the gift of compassion, the gift of justice, the gift of hope even if we don’t always know the direction to take! The denial of self is the letting go of all that gets in the way of life for all to prosper abundantly. We can live into the unanswerable questions and even if we don’t know, we can at least express our uncertainty and our vulnerability to others and discover a common journey of hope. Blessings on your Lenten journey. Amen.